Explainer: What is a whale?

Terms for the biggest marine mammals can be more than a bit fuzzy

By Janet Raloff, 11:01 AM June 25, 2014

Most people think they know what a whale is. It’s one of those enormous animals that cruise the ocean. But ask what distinguishes whales from dolphins (or from porpoises), and things get fuzzy. The answer isn’t just size. A major problem is that “whale” isn’t even a scientific term.

The word probably comes from some ancient European language and originally meant big ocean fish. Since then, in recent centuries, biologists have stepped in and pointed out that whales aren’t even fish. They’re mam...

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